The inevitable is now reality: Josef Martinez is Major League Soccer’s single-season goal king. The Atlanta United forward scored his 28th goal of the 2018 campaign Friday night in Orlando, breaking a record that had stood since 1996.
The goal came in style in the 74th minute, when Martinez took a pass from Julian Gressel, danced past Lions defender Jonathan Spector inside the box and chipped keeper Joe Bendik with his right foot to make history.
All-world strikers like Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba and Robbie Keane never came to besting the mark Roy Lassiter set during MLS’s inaugural season, although Bradley Wright-Phillips of the New York Red Bulls and San Jose Earthquakes captain Chris Wondolowski both equaled it in recent seasons.
Martinez scored his 27th goal last Saturday against Columbus and came close to adding the record-breaker later in the match, only to see his second-half header carom off the underside of the Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen’s crossbar.
He delivered on Friday in front of a national television audience, and now the 25-year-old Venezuelan striker stands alone.
“It is a big relief for me,” Martinez said afterward. “When I went in to the locker room laughing, the guys were making jokes about it and now I can make jokes back to them.”
The pressure may be off, but the best individual season in league history is far from over. If Martinez continues to score at his current pace, he’ll finish the year with an astonishing 36 goals. United and Martinez still have eight games left following Friday’s match. None of them will come against a team as porous as Orlando City, which has allowed a league-high 59 goals. But six of those eight matches will come against teams currently outside the playoff places, including an October meeting with the Chicago Fire, owner of the second-worst defense this season. It’s hard to see Martinez slowing down now.
“We knew he was going to break the record, it was just a matter of if he could do it sooner or later,” said United coach Tata Martino. “The good thing is he did it sooner. Now this will calm him down.”
A calm Martinez is a scary thought. He has proven to be one of the shrewdest MLS signings ever, averaging more than a goal a game since arriving in Georgia from Italian Serie A club Torino before last season, Atlanta’s first in the league. He managed 19 goals in 20 games in an injury-shortened 2017, and his year he’s been almost unstoppable. According to figures compiled by MLS’s official website, Martinez has more goals in 2018 than any player in the world. He’s gotten them every possible way, too. He’s dangerous from distance. He’s deadly inside the box.
Nine of the 5-foot-6 marksman’s strikes this season have come via headers, more than he’s scored with either foot from open play. Just six of his 28 tallies have been from the penalty spot. It obviously doesn’t count, but Martinez also scored against Torino’s crosstown Italian Serie A rival Juventus in the MLS All-Star game earlier this month, a match staged in his home stadium.
Martinez’s blistering form has made Atlanta United one of the chief contenders for MLS Cup this season. The club has the most points in MLS, putting it on track for the Supporters Shield in just its second season.
Surely, Martinez already has the MLS MVP trophy in the bag.
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